Court and care for your customers; it pays off    

Providing customers personal attention should be every company's biggest priority. Increasingly, however, I have observed a surprising lack of sensitivity toward the needs of the customer, sometimes to the point where customers question whether a company wants their business at all. Many could blame our increased interaction with technology for the seemingly diminished people skills in our society. The inescapable truth is that, regardless of what may be to blame, no company will remain in business for long if it does not properly court and care for its customers.

Approach: In Step 1 of the sales methodology I teach, the Track Selling SystemTM, the most critical buying decision a customer makes is the person from whom a customer will purchase a product or service.

Simply put: People want to buy from someone they like. This is why customer service representatives must be amiable so they can establish positive rapport and cultivate trust. Manners, a seemingly outmoded concept these days, are still relevant. Shaking hands, introducing oneself to a customer and offering a business card at the beginning of the first interaction not only helps to establish a relationship but it will make the customer feel secure and more at ease that he or she is dealing with a professional.

Attitude: A company should not assume its customer service force is full of outgoing individuals who automatically will connect with customers. While ideally those traits will be looked for during the hiring process, they also are skills that should be taught during training and, most importantly, supported by a companywide customer first" attitude modeled by leadership. Why should it matter if a pro-customer attitude comes from the top? Because the CEO of a company is not just the person who sets the tone for the rest of the company - he or she is also its most high-profile customer service representative.

Clothing retailer Abercrombie and Fitch learned this lesson after comments from CEO Mike Jeffries surfaced (in a 2006 interview with Salon). We want to market to cool, good-looking people," he was quoted as saying. We don't market to anyone other than that." His comments lent credence to the vitriolic complaints which for years had swirled on the internet about the company's customer service representatives' snobbish attitude. Jeffries' comments resulted in a bitter backlash on social media culminating in a large group of teens, Abercrombie's target demographic, storming the company's Ohio headquarters in protest.

Not all CEOs choose to publicly reveal brand strategy in such a candid way. However, regardless of the person from whom such words come, they will be perceived as coming from the top. Negative comments will negatively impact business. Therefore, leadership's attitude, whether public or internal, should be preventative in nature. It should reflect the company's goal of cultivating - not offending - customers. Sometimes a negative attitude can be subtle, however. A friend of mine recently shopped at a big-box technology store with his elderly mother for a tablet for her use. After much effort on my friend's part to get a customer service rep's attention, he was finally acknowledged, but his mother was ignored throughout the discussion despite the fact that the tablet was for her. Needless to say, she wasn't interested in buying from that store.

It's understandable that many customers will be hard to relate to, but being of service to the customer means stepping past preconceived ideas of who your customer should be. In truth, your customer is anyone whose needs can best be filled by your product or service. Sometimes that will be someone within your target market and sometimes it will not. Customer service representatives need to be shown the value in serving the customers they have, not the customers they wish they had.

Follow-up: Many companies have excellent, well-trained customer service representatives who handle the initial sale, but sometimes those same companies can lack a process for following up once the customer is sold. My local cable company prides itself on getting out for the initial appointment, touting its adherence to a narrow appointment window as respect for its customers' time. But after the installation and services are sold, the service tends to disappear, leaving a customer like me to fend for himself once problems arise.

Having experienced multiple issues since my initial installation, I have made many service calls. The customer service representatives with whom I've talked, while well-meaning, have mostly lacked the follow-through to address the problems. This has left me to do all the leg work myself and navigate my way through multiple departments until I stumble upon someone who can help me. It's been an exhausting process being this company's customer. In Step 7 of the Track Selling SystemTM:

Cement the Sale, I teach how people buy emotionally and then justify their decision logically. That means that customer service representatives must be just as attentive with current customers as they are with prospective ones, otherwise unhappy customers will regret their decision to buy - and move their business to your competition.

To avoid that, companies must employ a system to address problems after the sale that is equal to the one that facilitates the sale itself. Most customer service representatives have good intentions. They want to make customers happy. But many companies lack a process for them to follow and fail to empower them to be true advocates for their customers. Unprepared and overwhelmed, representatives can fail to communicate effectively or can drop the ball so the right process is not set in motion to meet the customer's needs.

This is when customers fall through the cracks and future business is lost. If you don't know the lifetime value of your customer, find out so you know why keeping the customer happy and coming back is so important. I believe that conscientious companies who are focused on serving their customers can avoid these pitfalls by training and preparing their customer service representatives to approach the customer in a friendly way, employ a positive attitude and use all available tools to follow up and ensure each customer is satisfied.

Companies who make improvement in these areas their goal will see a positive impact in their bottom line. At the core of good customer service is a respect for customers and their needs. Treat them as the valuable resource they are and your business will thrive. As business guru Tom Peters stated, Life is sales. (The rest is details.)"    

Roy Chitwood is an author, trainer and consultant in sales and sales management and is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle.